“We should be looking at it — it’s all part of our broader effort to address systemic issues, racism and the calls to action [from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission],” says Paul Schabas, treasurer of the LSO.
On May 4, the Law Society of Ontario agreed that the LSO’s Professional Regulation Committee will conduct a review of the process for assessing a candidate’s good character and to ask the Indigenous Advisory Group to the Law Society to provide guidance and input to the PRC throughout the review.
The move came after a group of lawyers had indicated they would put forth the motion at the LSO’s annual general meeting, which happened May 9.
The motion called for a review of how the Law Society assesses good character of applicants and to determine whether that creates a discriminatory barrier for Indigenous or other racialized applicants.
Naomi Sayers, an Indigenous articling student in the energy industry, said she will be keeping a close eye on the preliminary report due for the convocation in the fall.
“I will be holding him to account [in] his role as the treasurer to say, ‘You said you will review this and this is what needs to happen.’ I don’t want a review that says they need more time,” says Sayers. “They’ve had enough time.”
The Good Character Working Group — which was made up of members of the Aboriginal Law Section of the Ontario Bar Association but was independent of the OBA — said that its review would take into account the principles articulated by the Supreme Court of Canada in its decisions regarding taking the background of Indigenous people into account in both R. v. Gladue and R. v. Ipeelee.
Schabas said that when he first read the motion, he felt it was something the law society should be doing as part of its broader review of how it deals with Indigenous issues and racism.
To that end, Schabas approached the working group to thank the members for bringing it to the LSO’s attention and indicated that the LSO would take it on.
“We had a discussion with them about the things we intend to do and, as a result of that, I was pleased that they agreed to withdraw the motion because it’s not necessary,” says Schabas.
David McRobert, a Peterborough, Ont. lawyer who was part of the working group and who spoke on its behalf when withdrawing the motion, says he suspects the treasurer didn’t want to see a messy debate about the motion at the AGM and felt that it was simply about doing the right thing.
“In good faith, they say they’re going to look into it, and we applaud them for it,” says McRobert.
Schabas expects a preliminary report to be ready for the LSO’s Convocation in the fall.
“They’re going to take a look at the impact of the good character requirement, how it has been applied and how it applies to Indigenous people and other people to en sure that there’s not an unfair barrier there, and to come forward with recommendations as to what might be needed to change that if there are concerns,” says Schabas.
Schabas notes that, to date, the LSO has passed an Indigenous framework to examine all of its work through an Indigenous lens, and that the advisory group is active, containing elders and Indigenous lawyers who give advice across the full range of activities they do.
Schabas also noted that there is a review panel to look at how Indigenous issues and Indigenous complainants are dealt with as part of their complaints and discipline process to ensure that they are addressing them in an effective and culturally competent way.
“We’ve retained Ovide Mercredi, who is a well-known former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to give us advice as well on those issues,” Schabas says.
“We’re doing a lot, and we’re open to any other issues that people want to bring to our attention.”
Schabas also noted that, on May 22, in partnership with the Indigenous Bar Association and The Advocates’ Society, the LSO will launch a guide for lawyers to help them understand and become more culturally attuned to issues when representing Indigenous clients.
“From our point of view, it’s a win,” says McRobert.
“We really have achieved most of what we sought to do. There’s always a risk when these things are put to the AGM that these things could be voted down, in which case we’ll have raised the issue and people will be aware of it, but it won’t necessarily proceed further than that.”
McRobert says that, this way, there is a degree of certainty around the fact that the LSO will proceed quickly.
“Overall, the working group was pleased.”
Emily Hill, the interim legal advocacy director for Aboriginal Legal Services, says she is supportive of the fact that the LSO is taking on the issue.
“Often, lawyers’ first instinct is to argue and litigate, but it seems like people are taking a collaborative approach, which is positive,” says Hill.
She says it now falls on the law society to turn the work that’s been done so far by the working group and put it into action.